Admiral Beatty – Trafalgar Square stories

I’m not the first to say that Admiral Beatty’s story would make a great Hollywood movie.

On the north wall of Trafalgar Square, by the cafe tables, there are busts of three Admirals. Cunningham is a Second World War hero. Jellicoe and Beatty are there because of the First. These busts lead us to some of the lost stories of Trafalgar Square.

To many of us, their names don’t ring a bell, but the admirals were once were as famous as today’s celebrities are now.

Of the three, Admiral Beatty is the most colourful.

Admirals Beatty and Jellicoe and the Battle of Jutland

Search “Battle of Jutland” and very soon you will be in the thick of combative discussions between Team Beatty and Team Jellicoe, with occasional interjections by non-aligned factions.

This video footage includes some film from the First World War, taken while Beatty was at sea. One of his country homes, Brooksby, was used as a convalescent home for sailors and the film shows them having some fun. The commentary on the video is from 2016 and tells about Beatty’s life and career. Beatty and (possibly) Jellicoe also appear in the video.

At the Battle of Jutland, on May 31, 1916, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe commanded the Grand Fleet of the British Royal Navy, and Admiral Sir David Beatty commanded the 1st and 2nd Battlecruiser Squadrons. There are never-ending arguments about who did what and whether they did it right. In general, Beatty is criticised for being too aggressive and Jellicoe for not being aggressive enough. Hindsight is 20/20.

I have to step back from the table of naval strategy discussions, where I know nothing. Instead I want to look at Admiral Beatty’s upbringing and private life.

The Admiral’s pugnacious father

The Beatty story is a little bit confusing because four generations have the same first name, David. In order of birth, and as related to the Admiral, they are:

  • grandfather David Vandeleur Beatty (DVB or Grandfather)
  • father David Longfield Beatty (DLB or Father)
  • the Admiral, David Richard Beatty (DRB, David, Beatty, or the Admiral)
  • the son, David Field Beatty (DFB or David Junior).

Grandfather had an estate in Ireland, called Borodale, near the town of Enniscorthy in County Wexford. He was locally prominent, especially in hunting circles. Hunting in this case refers to riding horses cross-country with a pack of hounds in pursuit of a fox.

DVB was widowed twice, and married three times.

Father, or DLB, grew up at Borodale. He had a sister, Mary, and a younger brother, Robert. Their mother died in 1848 when DLB was six years old. Then Grandfather (DVB) remarried and a new half-brother arrived, Philip Vandeleur Beatty.

In his 20s, DLB brought scandal to the family and got himself disinherited by having an affair with a married woman. It was when he was in the army, the 4th Hussars. He and Mrs. Catherine Edith Chaine became close in about 1867. Her husband, William Chaine, was a brother officer and close friend of DLB. When it seemed romantic trouble could still be avoided, Grandfather made sure DLB got shipped out to India with the army.

William Chaine was on the same trip. The Hussars reached India, but then DLB turned around, resigned his commission, and went home to resume his affair with Catherine. Apparently this came as a shock to William.

DLB and Catherine didn’t care about William. The happy couple set up as man and wife right away, long before the eventual ugly divorce proceedings.

William returned to London in 1870 for the trial. He stayed on Jermyn Street at Cox’s Hotel, which is no longer standing.

The newspapers called the story “The Officer and the Runaway Wife”. The court report has details of the allegations (naughty weekends in various parts of the UK), the counter-allegations (bad husband who drank too much, neglected his wife, and consorted with depraved females) and also of the custody arrangement for little Francis Chaine. The decision was that Catherine would only see her son for a couple of hours every two weeks. Due to the distances and logistics involved, not to mention the hostilities, I wonder how long she was able to keep up the visits.

In the divorce proceedings, DLB said he had no money and had been disinherited. I think this may have changed later, but it seemed clear that no matter how large the judgement Chaine might be awarded, DLB wouldn’t be paying it. The ten thousand pounds Chaine had sued for turned into hundreds at the end.

DLB had a reputation for being headstrong. His courtship of Catherine certainly fits the bill. Nothing got in the way.

For much of his life, DLB raised horses. One day he was on a ride with Catherine and two or three others. They were about to cross a bridge when the farmer on the other side called to them not to, saying there was no path on his side of the bridge. This was probably not true. DLB had crossed the same bridge before and been able to carry on.

Based on what happened next, the farmer accused DLB of assault. He said DLB had got down from his horse and grabbed him by the throat a few times, injuring him. The group had then ridden across the bridge and through the field beyond.

I wouldn’t like to have been on the wrong side of David Longfield Beatty. Not only was he pushy but he was also big, about 6 feet 4 inches tall.

One biographer suggests that the Admiral and his elder brother Charles left home when they were quite young, to the Navy and Army schools respectively, to get away from their domineering father.

Admiral Beatty’s quest to get whatever he wanted

There’s no doubt that DLB’s son David, later Admiral Beatty, was uber-ambitious. He worked a combination of brains, good looks, stubbornness, and luck, and though he wasn’t at the top of his class, and he wasn’t the best sailor in the Navy, he still became the youngest admiral since the great Horatio Nelson.

I don’t want to detract from his record. Admiral Beatty was a hero before the First World War. His most famous engagement in that war was the Battle of Jutland. Over thirty years later, the fountains and busts in Trafalgar Square were installed in honour of both Beatty and Jellicoe. Clearly the nation appreciated their service.

Beatty was a legend in his own time and he sometimes considered himself beyond the rules. For example, his uniform wasn’t quite regulation. He had six buttons on his tunic when even the King’s uniform had the standard eight. Beatty wore his hat at a distinctive angle (the Beatty tilt), and he stood with hands in pockets, thumbs out, when posing for photos, affecting a casual, nonchalant look.

Earlier, as a single young naval officer, he had the good luck to be posted to the royal family’s ship. He became good friends with Princess Marie, one of Queen Victoria’s grand-daughters. She went on to be the Queen of Romania, and remained a friend of Beatty’s, albeit a distant one.

The Admiral was charismatic, but he lacked good manners. At least, that was a criticism made when he was under consideration for the role of Canada’s Governor General.

The most emotional example of Beatty getting what he wanted was his courtship.

The officer and the married woman

Ethel Field Tree was a great rider, socialite, captivating enchantress – whatever she was, it appealed greatly to Beatty. They met on a fox hunt and began a secret affair, seeing as she was still married to Arthur Tree.

It was stormy and at one point, when he was away dealing with the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion in China, Ethel stopped writing letters to David. There was another man. This was devastating.

Even so, Ethel must have changed her mind. She sent a telegram to Beatty to try and start things up again. He wasn’t having it and wrote her a passionate letter saying,

“I landed from China with my heart full of rage, and swore I did not care if I ever saw you again, or if I were killed or not. And now I have arrived with the firm determination not to see you at all in my own mind. … Unfortunately, I shall go on loving you to the bitter end. … To me, always a Queen, if not always mine, Good-bye.”.

How to say No while saying Yes. It did the trick, and the affair resumed, Ethel got a divorce and married David in 1901. This was before he was an admiral, though he was a decorated hero from action on the Nile.

Admiral Beatty in Trafalgar Square by Jill Browne

Admiral Beatty in Trafalgar Square by Jill Browne

Like his parents, David and Ethel were married in a low-key private ceremony with no family attending.

The very fortunate thing was that Ethel was the daughter of Marshall Field of the department store. She was one of the world’s richest women. This partly outweighed her reportedly unstable nature.

I suspect that Ethel and David were both somewhat vain and self-centred, and it may have been easier for them to be mutually reinforcing narcissists together than to do it alone. Is that too strong? It depends who you listen to. As I said at the start, there is Team Beatty and there is Team Jellicoe, and in between there is room for a host of beliefs.

At any rate, the Beattys had a long marriage and two sons. Although David had a mistress for ten years ending in 1926, he and Ethel stayed together until she died in 1932.

The Beatty lifestyle was over the top sometimes. There’s a story that David was pushing his ship too hard and straining the engines on a trip home to Malta so he wouldn’t be late for a polo match. When the Navy officials expressed concern, Ethel said, “What? Court martial my David? I’ll buy them a new ship.”

They gambled in Monte Carlo and mixed with high society. Their younger son Peter was a winning horse trainer who also mingled with the jet set.

Poor Peter died tragically in 1949 by falling from an upper floor of the Ritz Hotel after learning his progressive blindness could not be cured.

The lost boys

Along the way in this story, there are children whose lives were not well blessed by the actions of the adults around them.

Father, David Longfield Beatty, was left motherless as a little boy of six. His father married again when he was nine, and he got a new half-brother when he was twelve. These things are not uncommon but that doesn’t make them any less disruptive, even if everyone got along happily.

When DLB and Catherine Chaine got together, Catherine and William Chaine already had a little boy, Francis. Her divorce settlement basically ended her access to him. What became of Francis?

In the divorce, custody of Francis Chaine went to his father. While William was serving in the army, Francis probably lived with relatives. William eventually detached himself from the army and went about finding a new wife.

Francis had been born in 1867, around about the time his mother and DLB started their affair. By 1872, the Chaines had divorced and William was remarried, to a widow with eight children of her own.

That doesn’t sound too promising for young Francis – from being an only child to jumping into the middle of such a big family, and a widow with eight children probably had trouble making ends meet.

Appearances are deceiving. I of course don’t know what the emotional situation was, but the money wasn’t a problem. The new Mrs. Chaine was a friend of Queen Victoria, held the courtesy post of Keeper of the Royal Household, and lived at Kensington Palace. Unlike DLB and Catherine Beatty, the Chaines had a nice wedding in the Private Chapel at the palace.

Francis grew up, went into the navy, and married a widow. They lived in Kensington. Francis died at the age of 56, leaving a personal estate worth over £56,000.

Francis wasn’t the only lost boy. There were also Ronald and Henry.

When Ethel, the Admiral’s wife, divorced her first husband, she left behind a son, Ronald Tree. He grew up with his father, who didn’t remarry. Ronald was an only child. His father died on Ronald’s 16th birthday.

Ronald Tree strikes me as a studious, hard-working achiever and despite the rocky start, he knew how to enjoy life. His first wife was a famous interior designer, and his second was a government advisor, among other things. Ronald was an investor and a journalist and, like his half-brother David Beatty Junior, became a Member of Parliament. Ronald was wealthy through inheritance and his own efforts, though taxes caused him to sell his famous English country house, Ditchley, and move to the USA with his second wife.

That leaves one more boy to look at, the Admiral’s much younger half-brother, Henry.

DLB and Catherine had two children about five and ten years after Charles and David, who were close in age. Catherine died when David was 25. Father remarried. In 1901, the same year as David married Ethel, Henry was born. He was only four years older than David and Ethel’s first son, David Junior. DLB was 59 then.

By the age of three, Henry was fatherless. His widowed mother remarried, and had a daughter when Henry was nine.

Henry joined the Air Force and in 1935 died in a plane crash near Malta.

As it happens, the index to grants of probate for 1936 has both Henry and the Admiral on the same page. The two brothers’ entries are quite a contrast. Henry Longfield Beatty of Pembroke Dock died at Messina, administration to his mother, effects £97. Earl Beatty O.M., P.C., G.C.B., G.C.V.O., D.S.O., the Right Honourable David of Dingley Hall, Market Harborough and 17 Grosvenor Square, died at 17 Grosvenor Square, probate to Sir John James Withers C.B.E. knight and William Hereward Charles Rollo M.C. solicitor. Effects £174,902.

Meanwhile, back in Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square is such a busy place these days. So much goes on there that despite the name and the commanding statue of Admiral Nelson, it’s easy to lose track of the naval connections. That’s partly because not many people know that those elaborate fountains in the two ponds were put there in honour of Admirals Beatty and Jellicoe.

The fountains and the busts were unveiled and dedicated in October 1948, as this video shows. Trafalgar Square has been remodelled since then, and the busts have been moved a bit to accommodate the stairs.

In the video you may spot a familiar looking young officer at 0:57 and 4:57. I believe that is Prince Philip, acting as escort to the widowed Queen Mary, the present Queen’s grandmother. At the time of this video, Elizabeth was 8 months pregnant with the future Prince Charles.


Both Beatty and Jellicoe’s busts look toward Admiral Nelson, the hero of the Royal Navy.

Beatty died in 1936, not long after Jellicoe and King George V. The tombs of both Admirals are in St. Paul’s Cathedral, facing Nelson’s.

I wanted to tell this part of Beatty’s story because it’s so dramatic and also because it makes me think about character, leadership, and how some people always manage to get their own way. I’m tempted to say that as the twig is bent so grows the tree.

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